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Clijsters slips out of the spotlight

In an era when records, money or the cult of celebrity have driven many athletes to prolong their careers long after they have passed their peak, Kim Clijsters proved there is more to life than being a professional athlete.

Not since Swedish great Bjorn Borg turned his back on the sport in 1982 aged just 26 has a top player walked away from tennis at such a young age.

In fact Clijsters has even beaten Bjorg’s feat, calling it quits on Sunday aged just 23.

Just as Borg was worn down by his lack of privacy and loss in motivation, the popular Belgian yearned for a normal domestic life and got fed up with her constant battle against injuries.

Since 2004, the former world number one has probably read and re-read several injury manuals after spending more time on a physiotherapist’s table than on court.

While most of her rivals were locked in battle at one tournament after another, Clijsters became an expert on how to recuperate from ankle sprains, wrist surgery, hip problems and a number of other ailments.

With the daily grind of keeping her body match-fit becoming more and more unbearable, she earmarked 2007 as her final season on the tour more than 20 months ago.

Although she was expected to bow out in October, Sunday’s announcement did not come as a surprise especially since she did not want another injury to ruin her wedding to American basketball player Brian Lynch in July.

Her decision would also have cost her financially.

As fans would have flocked to tournaments hoping to catch a final glimpse of the 2005 US Open champion, she could have boosted her pension fund as she would have been guaranteed appearance money to turn up at non-grand slam events.

But with almost $15-million in prize money in the bank, she could not care less.

”It would be easy to go on for a few more months and take in the four big earners in tennis,” she said referring to the season’s three remaining majors and the end-of-season WTA Championships.

Many memories

”Money is important but not the most important thing in my life. Health and a private life are more important.”

As she looks forward to putting her feet up and embracing domestic chores as a housewife, Clijsters will have many memories to look back on from her nine-year professional career.

As the daughter of former soccer international Leo Clijsters and top Belgian gymnast Els, Kim was born with competitive juices running through her veins.

It was therefore little surprise when she climbed to the top of her chosen sport in August 2003 but she had to wait more than two years before she achieved her most notable feat by lifting the 2005 U.S. Open trophy — her only grand slam title.

The Belgian should have won more majors but her compatriot Justine Henin proved to be a stumbling block in three of the other four finals she contested.

As she slips into retirement ranked fourth in the world, she would have left the 10 000 000 plus inhabitants of Belgium with a lasting legacy after helping the country to win their first Fed Cup title in 2001.

For most of her career, though, her off-court relationship with fiery Australian Lleyton Hewitt, also a former world number one, gave her more off-court publicity than she cared for.

Hewitt enjoyed the showbiz lifestyle and often courted controversy with his angry outbursts. That often left Clijsters in an uncomfortable position as she was grilled on his behaviour and felt compelled to defend her fiance.

But following the break-up of that union just weeks before their planned marriage in 2005, Clijsters has thrived on being out of the spotlight thanks to her more low-key relationship with Lynch.

Having opted not to walk up the aisle two years ago with Hewitt, Clijsters is now adamant that nothing, including a successful tennis career, will ruin her second chance at happiness.

”Time to marry. Children? Time for cooking and playing with my dogs,” she said.

”Particularly a lot of time with my friends and family. No more travelling. No more stepping in and out of planes. No more having to read gossip or lies in the papers.” – Reuters

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